As Egypt approaches a crucial moment of transition, both Americans and Egyptians should take careful stock of the value of their long-standing but currently stressed strategic relationship. We must never find ourselves asking, "who lost Egypt?"
Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi's cabinet had resigned as Egypt finds itself in the midst of a political and economic crisis involving mass strikes, ongoing protests and, increasingly, terrorist attacks. Egypt is gearing up for presidential elections scheduled for mid-April, and there's widespread speculation that the Defense Minister, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, may run and win.
Meanwhile, the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood following the overthrow of former president Mohammad Morsi continues unabated. It has been declared a "terrorist organization." The Brotherhood insists that it has nothing to do with the terrorism that has spread out of Sinai, while the government insists it does. And it has suggestive circumstantial evidence, like demands by terrorists that only the restoration of Morsi would stop their violence.
Certainly, the threat to Egyptian national security and integrity is not merely a ruse to propel anyone into power. The prospect of a broader civic conflict is all too real.
Many in Washington have taken a dim view of Egypt's trajectory. Some criticizing Egypt's transition are clearly motivated by overt sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Others are genuinely committed to of democracy and have legitimate concerns about human rights. But they tend to underestimate the existential security challenges and the lack of alternatives facing the Egyptian people and authorities. And they haven't credited them with moving quickly towards creating a new Constitution, which has already been adopted, and preparing the upcoming elections. This new political and social dynamism can be helped or hindered by outsiders, especially Americans.
Meanwhile, many in Egypt blame the United States for being "on the wrong side." Supporters of the interim government, and many others, believe that the Obama administration actively wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to take power, rather than being willing to abide by the results of an election. They note the millions of Egyptians who poured onto the streets had no means of unseating an out-of-control Morsi other than the wildly popular military intervention. They add no one is calling the uprising in Ukraine a "coup." As for supporters of the Brotherhood, they are equally convinced Washington smiles on what they deem a "coup d'état."
The Obama administration has never formally declared the ouster of Morsi to be a coup d'état, precisely because that would trigger legal obligations with dire consequences for US-Egyptian strategic relations and security cooperation. Some American aid and cooperation have been suspended, but by executive decision. Some joint military exercises, delivery of weapon systems and planned cash transfers have been postponed, but much other cooperation continues.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in particular, appears to have "walked back" some of the harsher criticism heard earlier from other administration officials. While many voices in Washington continue to be highly, and unfairly, critical, the Administration does seem to increasingly recognize the importance of maintaining our strategic relations with Egypt.
Egypt is a uniquely important country in the Arab world, culturally and politically. It has by far the largest population, and its soft power and cultural reach remain unparalleled. The Arab world is greatly attuned to changes in Egyptian attitudes. Where goes Egypt, much of the rest of the Arab world is likely to follow.
In particular, our Arab allies in the Gulf region will look to a restoration of friendly relations between Egypt and the United States as a key indicator of their own future relations with Washington. A strong Egypt remains crucial for stability in much of North Africa, and particularly in Sinai and along the border with Gaza, which directly affects Israel and the Palestinians. Maintaining Israel's peace treaty with Egypt, and their cooperation in dealing with Gaza and Sinai, is another core American interest. Intelligence sharing and many other aspects of security cooperation are equally vital.
Moreover, preferential treatment for American naval and commercial fleets in the Suez Canal saves billions of dollars and weeks of time as opposed to waiting in a long queue, or taking the long route past the Cape of Good Hope.
If Americans are still interested in playing a major role in the Middle East, or even just the Gulf region, strong relations with Egypt are not optional. Egypt, too, can hardly expect to find a more valuable strategic partner.
The strategic relationship we have built was based on shared vital national interests that have not changed, despite the recent tensions. If necessary, Egypt could go it alone, but only at a great cost that it has every incentive to avoid. For ourselves, Egypt is too important to turn away from. Let us never have to ask each other, "who lost Egypt?"